Samuel Maoz on Foxtrot

It is only his second feature, but after his astounding debut Lebanon, Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz has dealt another blow with Foxtrot – and not everybody in Israel is happy.

Maoz is a man on a mission. He speaks firmly, passionately – and politically.

Foxtrot is only his sophomore feature, but Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz has already had a great impact. His first film, claustrophobic masterpiece Lebanon, was based on his personal experiences as a tank gunner in the Lebanon War of 1982 and won the Golden Lion in Venice. At that same festival, he won the Grand Jury Prize in 2017 for the impressive Foxtrot, a poignant, partly surreal indictment of the twisted military logic of his country, inspired by that one heart-wrenching hour when Maoz believed his daughter had died in a terror attack – before learning she had just missed that fateful bus.

“But I still feel lucky I have daughters”, Maoz assures. “Because the army doesn’t need more than ten, fifteen percent of the women. So if they don’t want to go, there are usually ways to arrange something. But let me be clear: a country that sends its sons to the army, to fight, to die, and to fuck their souls, should be a socialist country. If you’re a capitalist country, okay, so pay for it! Pay a good salary for those who want to go into the army. You can’t dance at two weddings.”

In Foxtrot it is about a son, who is therefore in the army. By having that son be declared dead to his parents, Maoz translated his own emotional devastation into a wider social critique. The numbness the father experiences at that moment, is reminiscent of Maoz’ own feelings. But the absurdist flashback to the roadblock in the middle of nowhere, where the son and other young soldiers are on guard duty, takes the story to another level. From family grief to national criticism.

  • Stills from Foxtrot

    Stills from Foxtrot

  • Stills from Foxtrot

    Stills from Foxtrot

  • Stills from Foxtrot

    Stills from Foxtrot

  • Stills from Foxtrot

    Stills from Foxtrot

Why did you want that absurdist tone in that segment?

“I don’t really have an interest in a realist film about a roadblock. I don’t make a naturalistic cinema. My cinema is more experiential and tries to penetrate and reflect the souls of my characters. This is a kind of cinema where the visual dimension is an integral part of the story. Basically, I treat text as the enemy. If I can manage without it, I prefer to manage without it. And to trust the body language, the eyes, the expressions. Human language, which does not need translation. Everybody understands it. Just as everyone can understand that there isn’t exactly such a specific roadblock anywhere, and that it is one big allegory for society. So that the message is broader.”

That message didn’t please the Israeli minister of Culture. She called the movie ‘a shame’.

“Yes, but when journalists asked her about it, they realized she hadn’t seen the film! I don’t really want to react to the empty talks of a woman who has not seen my film. I can only say, that every human society should strive to improve itself, and the basic and necessary condition for improvement is the ability to accept criticism. So, if I criticize the place I live in, I do it because I worry, I do it because I want to protect it, I do it out of love.”

In the film, unwelcome facts, like a bullet-ridden car, are simply buried.

“That moment is the climax of an unhealthy situation, a situation that is getting more and more crooked. The burial of the Mercedes expresses, I think, repression and denial. We prefer to bury the truth, rather than confront it and ask ourselves penetrating questions.”

We prefer to bury the truth, rather than confront it and ask ourselves penetrating questions.” – Samuel Maoz

Just as the father in Foxtrot represses his traumas.

“People think that people who suffer from war trauma are having nightmares, they’re maybe lonely, they live in small flats. I know many people that are traumatized, but sometimes their reaction is the opposite. You try to prove to everybody that you’re okay. So you achieve great things, and raise a family, and make an effort to convince everybody around you that you are okay, that you are in control. But the truth is that your soul is bleeding, and you’re going around with an X on your face [like the drawing the son made of his father in Foxtrot; red] , and when you don’t have a way to download all this tension you kick the dog and the dog pays the prize. I know many men in Israel who walk around with an X on their face. Because we are the masters of repression. And I think the job of the film is – not to change, but to try to talk about it. Openly.”

While the parents are still numbed by the news their son has died, a military cleric already starts explaining how the funeral will be organised. Do you have to let the army bury a dead soldier?

“No, in the end it’s your son. But it’s very convenient that you don’t have to deal with all the procedures, so most people just go along with it.”

So, is it still possible to be an atheist in Israel?

“I have said before, that the best place in Jerusalem is the highway to Tel Aviv. That is a very atheist and openminded city.”

Foxtrot was premiered at IFFR this year and will screen in Dutch cinemas from 12 April 2018.

Photo in header: Photo: Jan de Groen. Interview: Kees Driessen.